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Candidates in bid for NDP nomination weigh in on Calgary-Banff passenger rail

“I really feel like there’s a lot of unanswered questions and we’re being asked to say we support or oppose a train when we don’t actually have all of the information."
cp rail pic banff
A freight train passes through Banff. RMO FILE PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – Candidates in the running for the New Democratic Party’s MLA nomination for the Banff-Kananaskis riding say the proposed Calgary-Banff passenger rail has merit, but lacks public information and accountability.

In the first all-candidates forum on Jan. 17 between nomination candidates, Canmore residents Sarah Elmeligi, Gavin McCaffrey and Mark Tkacz weighed in on a question about what they would advocate for in regards to the proposed $1.5 billion proposed passenger rail project.

“There’s a lot of potential in this idea … The one thing that I want is more information. There’s no mention of wildlife, environmental impact assessments have not been done,” said Elmeligi.

“I really feel like there’s a lot of unanswered questions and we’re being asked to say we support or oppose a train when we don’t actually have all of the information,” she added.

“I’d like to have better understanding of the incentive that will get people out of their cars and into the train because the feasibility study suggests it could just be more people, not less emissions.”

The 150-kilometre Calgary-Banff passenger rail proposal would link Calgary International Airport to the Banff railway station, with several stops along the way, including downtown Calgary, Cochrane, Stoney Nakoda, Canmore and Banff.

The project is being spearheaded by Banff’s Jan and Adam Waterous, who are the owners of the Mount Norquay ski resort in Banff and hold the lease to Canadian Pacific Railway lands on both the north and south side of the tracks at the Banff train station.

In December, the Waterous’ company, Liricon Capital, partnered with Quebec-based Plenary Americas to submit an updated proposal to Alberta Transportation, Invest Alberta Corporation and the Canada Infrastructure Bank to move to the design phase of the proposed Calgary to Banff passenger rail project. Under their proposal, construction would be completed and the railway up and running by as early as 2025.

The project is being billed as a means of connecting communities, providing transportation for visitors to lead to fewer cars and reduced congestion, and therefore less pollution. More than four million tourists visited Banff every year pre-pandemic.

Critics, however, are concerned the return of passenger rail could just mean even more tourists in the already busy communities of Canmore and Banff, without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions if people continue to drive.

Tkacz agreed with Elmeligi and questioned what was happening with environmental impacts assessments, proposed wildlife mitigations and Indigenous consultations.

“The existing train line, which is proposed to be twinned with this, is already a huge area of concern for wildlife,” said Tkacz.

“The big question is how are we getting all of these people around and how much are we going to reduce the vehicle traffic,” he added.

“Then finally, if we’re talking about hydrogen, which is a noble goal, how is that going to work and where is the funding going to come from to covert that if it isn’t done in the first place.”

McCaffrey agreed with his fellow contenders, particularly around communication and education, but said a solution is needed to address the growth in tourism and with vehicle traffic increasing exponentially.

He said he has already had discussions with municipal leaders to identify issues.

“Fundamentally, conceptually, rail service does present itself as a possible solution … but it’s got to be done right,” he said.

“I do think that there’s an opportunity for a holistic approach to incorporate culture, history, wildlife education, environmental awareness, music, First Nations in this experience if we get it right.”

On Jan. 7, there was a meeting of the Bow Valley Corridor Alliance, a group of First Nations, Parks Canada and municipalities that lie along the proposed passenger rail route, including Calgary, Cochrane, Morley, Canmore and Banff.

Mayors and representatives of municipalities met to discuss the next steps and agreed to write a joint letter to the province in support of the project. Representatives from Parks Canada and Stoney Nakoda were not in attendance.

Canmore council has approved $100,000 for a 2022 study to assess the best location for a passenger rail station in Canmore and look at the impact of the Calgary-Banff rail project on the municipality’s transportation systems, such as Roam public transit.

Mayor Sean Krausert, who attended the Jan. 7 meeting, said Canmore is looking very closely at potential locations and the impact of train service coming to the community.

“We want to be ready and proactive in dealing with a potential passenger rail coming through our town rather than behind the curve and having to react,” he said.
“Canmore has no say as to whether or not this train goes through our town … the question is if it does go through our town, should we be at the table and be evaluating if and where it should stop in our town? The best place to be in order to do that evaluation is at the table.”

Mayor Krausert said the Town of Canmore is in support of the concept of rail, particularly if it can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion and provide transportation to workers to help deal with the Bow Valley’s ongoing staffing shortages.

He said whether it will, in fact, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion has yet to be determined.

“Obviously, it depends how many cars actually get taken off the road, and the type of train that is actually put into place,” he said.

“There are definitely some real big benefits that have potential and so I am in support of exploring those potential benefits and seeing where it lands.”

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno, who was also part of the Jan. 7 meeting, said the Town of Banff is excited to see the progress on the passenger rail proposal.

“As a model environmental community, Banff desperately needs convenient, affordable and frequent mass transit from Calgary,” she said. “Mass transit is critical in curtailing our GHG emissions, for reducing traffic congestion and I also see it as a bonus for commuters in the Bow Valley.”

Mayor DiManno said Banff is one step ahead of other municipalities because the train station infrastructure is already in place.

“We would need to assess the impacts on our community and what we would need in addition to what we already have if this were to go forward,” she said.

The Calgary-Banff rail project will include a new sustainable passenger rail infrastructure built within the existing Canadian Pacific Railway corridor. CP has consistently said it is co-operating with all involved parties to fully understand and assess the project.

Under the plan, the public-private-partnership (P3) and Canada Infrastructure Bank will contribute all of the $1.5 billion in capital costs and operate the system.
The Alberta government is being asked to kick in $30 million per year for the project.